Hugh Cassidy: the thinking man's strength strategist

Hugh Cassidy: the thinking man's strength strategist

Take a journey back in time and vicariously experience pure training hell under the auspices of a true strength icon. Ever wondered how the elite trained? They trained brutally hard, long and infrequently. Savagery, interspersed with power eating.


Featured Gym Equipment: knee wraps, weightlifting belt, barbell, Olympic bar

"His best muscle was his brain."

Hugh "Huge" Cassidy was an average Joe that morphed himself into a strength Superman. He was the first powerlifting superheavyweight world champion and won the title in 1971 with an aggregate three-lift total of 2,160. That same total would have won the IPF raw world championship in 2013. In 1971 Cassidy squatted 800-pounds "raw." The 800-pound squat was taken far below parallel and done without a squat suit, knee wraps or even a weightlifting belt. Hugh mentioned that he'd wished he'd had another squat attempt on that day, as he felt good for 830 or 840.

Cassidy bench-pressed 570-pounds. He was required to hold the bar on his chest for a 2-second pause. That was the rule back then. Imagine having 570 pounds on your chest as the referee counts "one-thousand-and-one…one-thousand-and-two…PRESS!" Naturally Hugh wore no bench shirt, as that horrific invention lay a dozen years into the future. Hugh finished his world championship day by deadlifting 790 to tie Big Jim Williams and win the world title by being the lighter giant: Hugh weighed in at a mere 296-pounds while the 6'3" Williams tipped the beam at 341-pounds.

The depth of talent in those primal days was staggering. On that same day Big Jim Williams bench-pressed 660-pounds, raw, with a 2-second pause on the chest. The greatest bench presser in history also squatted 800 on that day. Cassidy had to out-deadlift Big Jim by 90 pounds on his final pull to win the world championship in incredibly dramatic fashion. Cassidy's final deadlift was almost disqualified when a crazed power fan ran out of the packed audience and rushed the platform, like a groupie at a rock concert he jumped onstage, screaming encouragement to Cassidy at the top of his lungs, distracting the judges from judging the winning deadlift. Only after it was determined the fan was not one of Cassidy's entourage was the lift passed and Hugh not disqualified.

Big Jim's young training partner, the monstrous 20-year old, John Kuc, would become a future hall-of-fame lifter. At the world championships he weighed 330-pounds and pulled the winning deadlift of 880 up to his knees before failing. This was his last ditch attempt to win the overall title. The next year Cassidy would retire (knee injury) and Kuc would win the world title, squatting 900 raw. Kuc then reduced his bodyweight to a ripped and shredded 240 (he was 6-1) and shocked the powerlifting world when at the worlds in front of the strictest judging on the planet he squatted 832 in ace bandage knee wraps, benched 500 and deadlifted a mind-blowing 876. Kuc's deadlift and the 2,200 pound three lift total world records stood for the next 22 years.

Hugh's best muscle was his brain: he was a thinker, a visionary, a trailblazer, a brilliant strength strategist and tactician; a man whose torture tactics got results every single time they were properly implemented. His methods were extreme. He only trained twice a week, but those sessions were marathon, taking upwards of two hours.

His exceedingly intense (though infrequent) powerlifting sessions were intertwined with a force-feeding diet plan: he reasoned that at his height, 5-11, he would lift optimally weighing 300-pounds. At 300 his leverages would be maximized. He weighed 185 when he riddled this. He observed that the best powerlifters were thick and dense in relation to their height. He constructed bodyweight/height ratios based on the champion lifter of the day and reckoned that to become a good national level lifter he would need to weigh at least 245 and to be a good world-level lifter he would need to weigh 300.

Years after hatching his if/then postulation and supposition, "if I can push my bodyweight up to 245, then I will become a good national level lifter" Hugh won his first national championship - as a 242-pound lifter. 18 months later he won the world championships - as a 300 pound lifter; dead reckoning in actualizing his goals. Success verified his methods.

To add muscular firepower, to become thick with muscle, Cassidy force-fed himself, like a sumo wrestler. He purposefully and methodically and routinely and ravenously ate 5,000 + calories each and every day. Hugh also drank 4-6 quarts of whole milk each day, every day; the milk was in addition to his massive intake of regular food. He purposefully drove his bodyweight upward: each successive week he made himself a bit bigger and stronger. He had willpower, he had a strategy, he had a method, he had a goal and he had patience.

Philosophically, Cassidy was confusion-free; he had no nagging questions about the effectiveness of his methodology, he was sure that his methods worked and with time and effort and patience he would prove it - and he did just that by winning in a few short years, the junior national championships, the national championships and the world championships. Local lifters began using his exact methods and those that could cope with the savagery of the training and those that could successfully adhere to the legislated eating were coming on strong regionally and nationally.

Hugh was no genetic wonder: he was Joe Average who'd figured a strategy to purposefully morph himself - from what he was, a regular athlete, into what he wanted to be - a world champion strength athlete. He turned himself into a world champion with nothing more going for him than a really good method and disciplined adherence. Other local lifters picked up on his strategy of combining of high volume high intensity power training with heavy eating.

Hugh's top student, Mark "Duck" Dimiduk won the junior nationals, the senior nationals and the unified world championships in 1980. This cemented Cassidy's reputation as a great coach. His approach began to be proven effective on a widespread basis. If the name of the game was building power and size, Cassidy's prescription worked every single time.

Strength Training Minimalism: "doing fewer things better"

Hugh was a minimalist. He believed in "doing fewer things better." He once famously said, "I don't believe assistance exercises have much value for me. Therefore I use none." Here is his exact last training session, done eight days before the 1971 world championships…

Monday night

Bench press, touch-and-go style: 135x15, 245x10, 345x6, 425x3, 475x3, 510x1, 530x2, 545x2, Paused bench press: 470x5, 505x3, 525x2, 545x1 - he benched 570 at the worlds

Squats: 275x8, 435x5, 560x3, 650x3, 700x3, 725x3 then 650x3 and 670x3 - he squatted 800

Deadlift: 335x8, 535x5, 670x2, 750x2 - no back-offs, "no gas left." In competition 790

Workout session: two hours long, 24 total sets

Hugh Cassidy world record powerlifter barbell squat

Behold the optimal squat technical archetype: so many lessons to be learned from this photo….

  • Architecture: his shins are near vertical with knees pulled back over ankles
  • Finding depth is never a problem; he ‘bottoms out' on every rep
  • On the lowering, he breaks his knees and pushes his butt rearward
  • Note ‘low bar' barbell placement: sitting atop flexed rear deltoid
  • He maintains an upright torso - the Olympic bar never gets in front of the knees
  • He ‘triangulates,' he purposefully fixes his eyes on a spot on the floor
  • He squats down and back, a slow, precise descent; exerting tension and control
  • Knees are kept maximally out on both descent and ascent
  • A few inches above the turnaround, he relaxes the leg muscles
  • The barbell drives him into the bottommost position
  • At ‘the turnaround,' where descent becomes ascent; he reengages leg drive
  • He makes use of the slight rebound, "catch the upstroke, like a surfer"
  • As the ascent starts, he reengages his legs and pushes upward
  • He pushes upward with the rear of the foot
  • He drives up and back - never forward
  • As he encounters the sticking point, he throws his chin upward
  • At the sticking point, knees are forced further outward
  • Breath is sucked in during 1st 3rd of the rep descent
  • Breath is held and released as the squat approaches lockout
  • At lockout, knees are completely locked out: no "leakage"

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.